The 2018 Honda Clarity real-world review: enough to challenge the Chevrolet Volt?

Frame from 2018 Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid “Beyond the Battery” ad

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I’ve owned two Chevrolet Volts, an early 2011 model and, currently, a second-generation 2017 version. I have loved them both.

They’re sleek, sprightly, and have enough electric range to cover most driving. For longer trips, the gas engine kicks in when the charge runs out. The Volt, to me, is the perfect compromise between electric and gas, traditional and cutting-edge—and the car I almost always recommend when people ask me what electric-car they should buy.

Three features set the Volt apart from—and in my opinion way above—other plug-in hybrids such as the Toyota Prius Prime and Ford Fusion Energi.

READ THIS: 2018 Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid: weekend drive review

First, the Volt has a much bigger battery—18.4 kwh, good for an EPA-rated range of 53 miles. Other plug-in hybrids have smaller batteries that typically limit electric range to around 20 miles—and in the case of the early Prius plug-ins, a pitiful 11 miles.

Second, the Volt has a much bigger electric motor—149 horsepower and 298 foot-pounds of torque. That torque number is more than double the electric oomph of the Prius Prime and Fusion Energy.

And third, the Volt uses a (mostly) series-hybrid powertrain. That means the electric motor drives the wheels virtually all the time. When the battery runs out, the Volt’s gas engine kicks in as a generator and keeps the battery charged up to power the electric motor.

As a result, the Volt driver always enjoys that sublime electric torque, even in gas mode.

Puny parallels

The parallel drivetrains of other plug-in hybrids work differently.

In general, the gas engine and a small electric motor trade off or pair up as necessary to drive the wheels. The electric motor can typically handle gentle acceleration and moderate speeds by itself, but when more power is needed, the gas engine jumps in to help drive the wheels—even with a full battery charge.

2017 Toyota Prius Prime and 2017 Chevrolet Volt with Green Car Reports editor John Voelcker

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Short range, little torque, burning gas even when the battery is fully charged—why would anyone put up with these shortcomings when they could buy a Volt?

It’s always puzzled me that, even after the Volt pioneered the long-range series-hybrid way back in 2011, no one else followed

Enter the Clarity

Finally, in 2018 the Volt gained a true rival—a series hybrid with a big battery and a big electric motor. And with the reputation and marketing power of Honda behind it, the 2018 Clarity Plug-in Hybrid has the potential to be a star player on the electric-car scene.

The two cars’ numbers are very similar.

The Clarity Plug-in Hybrid has an EPA electric range of 48 miles, just shy of the Volt’s 53.

2018 Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid drive, Napa Valley, Caifornia, Dec 2017

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In gas mode, both the Clarity Plug-in Hybrid and the Volt get 42 mpg overall.

The Clarity Plug-in Hybrid has a bit more electric power than the Volt (181 vs 149 hp) but less electric torque (232 lb-ft vs 298).

READ THIS: 2018 Honda Clarity PHEV revisited: is this the car Bill Clinton wanted built?

Their prices are very similar: a base price including destination of $34,295 for the Clarity Plug-in Hybrid, $34,095 for the Volt.

On paper, the Clarity Plug-in Hybrid and Volt really diverge in only two major areas: size and body style. The Clarity is classified as a mid-size sedan, the Volt a compact hatchback.

Numbers aside, I was eager to test-drive a Clarity Plug-in Hybrid and to see if my beloved Volt was about to be dethroned as “King of the Plug-In Hybrids.”

Dealer demo

I headed to my local Honda dealer to drive the Clarity.

Not a great way to do a thorough evaluation, to be sure. But it would let me get a basic feel for the car—as well as a chance to see if mainstream dealers are starting to move beyond ignoring electric cars, which I’ve seen so often in the past.

So I told the dealer I was checking out the Clarity as a possible alternative to my Volt when my lease expired.

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